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Thursday, August 17, 2006

War on Daddy’s Dime

August 18, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist

I’m not sure yet who’s the winner in the war between Hezbollah and Israel, but I know who’s the big loser: Iran’s taxpayers. What a bunch of suckers.

Isn’t it obvious? As soon as the reckless war he started was over, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, declared that Hezbollah would begin paying out cash to the thousands of Lebanese families whose homes were destroyed. “We will pay compensation, a certain amount of money for every family to rent for one year, plus buy furniture for those whose homes were totally destroyed,” said Nasrallah. “These number 15,000.”

Nasrallah also vowed that his organization would help rebuild damaged houses and businesses, promising those affected that they will “not need to ask anyone for money or wait in queues” to get relief funds. To paraphrase the All-State commercial, “You’re in good hands with Hezbollah.”

But wait — where will Hezbollah get some of the $3 billion-plus needed to rebuild Lebanon? Last time I checked, Hezbollah did not have any companies listed on the Nasdaq. The organization doesn’t manufacture anything. It doesn’t tax its followers. The answer, of course, is that Iran will dip into its oil income and ship cash to Nasrallah, so that he will not have to face the wrath of Lebanese for starting a war that reaped nothing but destruction.

Yes, thanks to $70-a-barrel oil you can have Katyusha rockets and butter at the same time. When oil money is so prevalent, why not? Hezbollah and Iran are like a couple of rich college students who rented Lebanon for the summer, as if it were a beach house. “C’mon, let’s smash up the place,” they said to themselves. “Who cares? Dad will pay!” The only thing Nasrallah didn’t say to Lebanese was, “Hey, keep the change.”

In the cold war, Russian taxpayers were the suckers who rebuilt Arab armies every time they got crushed by Israel. Now Iran’s citizens will foot the bill with their oil income — assuming the ayatollahs actually put their money where their mouth is. (Iran was always happy to spend money on Hezbollah rockets. Let’s see if it will pay for schools and clinics.)

This is why I am obsessed with bringing down the price of oil. Unless we take this issue seriously, we are never going to produce more transparent, accountable government in the Middle East. Just the opposite — we will witness even more reckless, unaccountable behavior like Nasrallah’s and Iran’s.

Been to Syria lately? Why do you think it can afford to shrug off U.S. sanctions? It also is not making microchips. It is, though, exporting about 200,000 barrels of oil a day, and that is what keeps a corrupt and antiquated regime in power. The Syrian regime subsidizes everything from diesel to bread. As in Iran, almost half of Syria’s people are teenagers, and without real economic reforms, widespread unemployment and unrest are just around the corner — but for now, oil money postpones the reckoning.

Ditto Iran. Iran is OPEC’s second-largest producer, selling the world about 2.4 million barrels of oil a day and earning the regime some $4 billion a month — the government’s main source of income. To buy public support, Iran’s regime subsidizes housing, gasoline, interest rates, flour and rice.

According to an Aug. 2 report on Bloomberg.com, “Iran spent $25 billion on subsidies last year, or more than half the $44.6 billion it collected through crude oil exports.” But Iran actually has to import more than one-third of its gasoline, because it can’t refine enough itself. This became so expensive the regime wanted to ration subsidized gas but feared a public backlash. No wonder. Bloomberg reported that subsidized gasoline in Iran is 34 cents a gallon.

Repressive governments like Iran’s and Syria’s use oil money to buy off their people and insulate themselves from the pressure of political and economic reform. When oil prices get high enough, they can even buy a monthlong war in Lebanon. Why not? It’s like a summer sale: “Now, this summer only: 34 cents-a-gallon gasoline and a war with the Jews and new living room furniture for Lebanese Shiites! Such a deal!”

If we could cut the price of crude in half, it would mean that all of Iran’s oil income would go to subsidies — which would be unsustainable and therefore a huge threat to the regime. It would also make Iran’s puppets, like Nasrallah, think three times about launching wars with Israel that might ravage Lebanon again.

Too bad we have a president who tells us we’re “addicted to oil” but won’t do anything about it. That sort of hypocrisy just makes Nasrallah’s day.

Line of Fire - Hard Crossings

Expressing its utmost concern at the continuing escalation of hostilities which has already caused hundreds of deaths and injuries on both sides, extensive damage to civilian infrastructure and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons …

Calls on Israel and Lebanon to help ensure humanitarian access to civilian populations and the voluntary and safe return of displaced persons …

The above are two excerpts from the recently approved United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701. Due to the political and military situation, I feel rather confident that the displaced Lebanese (and certainly the Israelis) will be allowed to return to their homes (though the condition those homes will be in — if they are even still standing — is another matter).

Nevertheless, I thought of the issue of displacement as I was traveling across the Jordan River from Amman to Ramallah using an international crossing point that bears three names; Jordan calls it the King Hussein Bridge, Israel calls it Allenby Bridge and the Palestinians call it Al Karameh Crossing Point.

I am not going to talk about the 3.5 million Palestinians who, along with their children, are registered refugees since 1948, or the 770,000 Palestinians displaced in 1967. I am just talking about the Palestinians legally allowed to live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip but have no access to the rest of the world except through two tightly controlled crossing points.

These border points are actually points of long and continuous suffering, especially during the hot summer days. Thousands of Palestinians spend long hours, often with their children, waiting to cross this temporary border between areas controlled by the Israeli army and Jordan. After the capture of an Israeli soldier in June, those living in Gaza can no longer use this location but are obliged to use the Rafah crossing point, which has been largely closed for over 50 days.

The Jordan River bridge is open for a few hours in the morning and afternoon, which adds to the overcrowdedness and sufferings of individuals and families. While a few cosmetic changes have occurred since 1967 to speed up the travel proceedings, the journey from Jerusalem/Ramallah to Amman or the return trip, which used to take a little over an hour, can now take up to 12 hours. No Palestinian is allowed to make the entire journey in his or her car or any other vehicle.

An improvement occurred during the first years after the Oslo Accords when Palestinian police along with Israeli officials were located at the Israeli-controlled point and the bridge was allowed to be open around the clock. But after the outbreak of the 2000 intifada, the Palestinian police were kicked out by the Israelis and the hours were reduced.

Now the crossing is run entirely by Israeli military and civilian officials and workers with little concern for or interest in the Palestinian people they have to process. The young male and female reserve soldiers at these posts, who are themselves not too pleased with being at this temporary job, often treat the ordinary Palestinians they encounter with arrogance, and even racism.

The expense of travel across this Israeli-controlled point is also unbelievable. The total amount, for permit fees and exit tax, can reach up to $80 per person. For a big family, this plus the cost of transportation easily tops $100 per person. Out of this amount at least $15 per person of the exit tax is earmarked for the Palestinian Authority, but these funds have not been turned over to the Palestinian Authority since last January’s parliamentary elections.

Those not wanting to wait for hours in the hot summer sun can use a special V.I.P. service that is nothing less than highway robbery. To be allowed to bypass the long lines of buses, a van service charges a hefty $82 per person to make the three-kilometer journey between the two banks of the Jordan. A family of five would have to pay up to $800 in travel costs, travel fees, exit tax, V.I.P. service and travel costs on the other side to make the entire 90-kilometer journey from Jordan to the West Bank. Of course, all this depends on having the acceptable travel documents and the Israeli border police permitting you and your family to enter or leave.

I certainly hope that our Lebanese friends will be allowed to return despite the presence of Israeli soldiers in areas south of the Litani. I would hate to think what would happen to them if the Israeli presence, God forbid, become permanent and they would have to go through what Palestinians, adter 39 years of occupation, have been going through.

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Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab, a journalist and columnist, is director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University, in Ramallah and a founder of AmmanNet.net, the Arab world's first Internet radio station.

Summer in the City - Negotiations

“Seventy-eight years!” someone said, and there was that distinctive popping sound. I’d come for a tuna salad sandwich but now plastic cups of champagne were being poured and, in a democratic spirit, one was placed on the Formica counter in front of me.

Before I could ask what was going on, the waitress came up and said they were out of tuna salad.

I had wandered into Buffa’s, on Prince and Lafayette Streets, on a whim. I had been feeling a bit frazzled. I go there now and then to settle down. “Time pools,” Barry Lopez wrote in his essay, “On the Wings of Commerce.” He was traveling the world in cargo planes, spanning the globe in a day, but it’s also possible to be jolted out of time in the course of certain city blocks. Buffa’s is a time-pooling place; it provides the consolations of a sandwich on a plate whose only other adornment is a pickle.

The two proprietors, brothers named Augie and Jon, were behind the counter wearing Buffa’s T-shirts. Someone came in and asked for a straw.

“Straws I don’t got!” Augie said. “I timed it perfectly, down to the wire. Nothing left.”

“You closing?” I asked.

“Renovating,” said Jon. “We’ll be back in a couple of months.”

Jon and Augie are the grandchildren of the man who opened the place 78 years ago. Over the years Buffa’s has grown, replacing adjoining businesses. Now it’s an anomaly in Soho, a place where an egg salad sandwich, a Diet Coke and a Tootsie Pop cost $4.70.

In a couple of months they will return but, as Jon explained in a hushed tone, as “a different kind of place.” He named a very sleek restaurant on 17th Street and 7th Avenue. “Something like that,” he said.

“So this is it for you?”

“Oh, no, we’ll still be around. We’ll be partners, you know.”

My egg salad sandwich arrived. Jon was called away for a toast.

It was approaching 3 o’clock, closing time.

On the way out I grabbed a Tootsie Pop from a big glass jar full of them — I suppose you can’t time Tootsie Pops — and as I paid, Augie launched into a monologue about how much the neighborhood had changed since he grew up down the block.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t know who to be more afraid of, the wiseguys or the nuns,” he said.

“And which of those two groups are still around?”

“Neither!” he said. “They’re both gone. The wiseguys I don’t miss. The nuns …,” he shrugged.

Hello Wal-Mart

A few days later I drove up to the Bronx to attend a rally by the anti-Wal-Mart organization Wake-Up Wal-Mart. The rally, at Our Lady of the Refuge church, was to be the launch of a cross-country bus tour to get the message out.

There was a heat wave in action — Fordham Road was sweltering and chaotic, but open for business. I was on my Vespa, and when I pulled over to consult a map, a blast of air conditioning from an open-fronted store barreled into me with such force, I was surprised the entire Bronx power grid didn’t collapse on the spot. It felt good.

The other means of dealing with the heat wave involved a more tangible medium — water. The side streets were a festival of open hydrants.

A huge tour bus was idling outside Our Lady of Refuge. A giant smiley face with a frown had been painted on the bus, along with the words, “Wake-Up Wal-Mart!”

Inside the church — in a large concrete room, a community center of sorts — 60 or 70 people milled around and sat in chairs. Most of them seemed to be the event’s organizers. Or people wearing union T-shirts. Or reporters. The room buzzed with energy.

The Reverend Billy, a political performance artist, took the microphone and led his choir into a gospel song whose refrain was, “Back away back, Wal-Mart, back away!”

Next up was a Franciscan priest, the Rev. Bryan Jordan. He wore a brown robe and jogging sneakers. In a thick New York accent he delivered a brief speech against Wal-Mart that began “It’s nice to be home in the Bronx!” and ended, “They steal from Indians, Chinese, and expect the workers of this country to work for peanuts. Wal-Mart can [and here he used a figure of speech that involved Wal-Mart kissing a part of his body]. Get out of here!”

A union man followed, then a pair of local political activists who shared an anecdote about a Bronx-born soldier in Iraq who said he would rather risk getting killed than take a low-paying retail job in the Bronx.

Then it was time for the main event, the show-and-tell by Chris Cofinas and Paul Blank, former campaign officials for Howard Dean and Wesley Clark respectively, who set up the Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign and who were going to be getting on the bus.

There was a slide show, and Cofinas did a good job of depicting Wal-Mart as a kind of retail version of the omniverous fish in the movie “Darwin’s Nightmare,” a kind of toxic rash spreading over the country, devouring other life forms. But the screen was very small, the PowerPoint slides malfunctioned, and Cofinas’ speech was flat. “Come on guys!” I thought. “You know what you are up against, you have to do better than this!”

I left before Cofinas finished his talk and took pictures of the idling bus double-parked outside. It was a two-way street, and now only one lane was available; cars squeezed by in impatient shifts.

“Probably Be a Good Thing”

The sun was in remission, the sky blue and pink. I cruised south in the heat-stricken dusk.

Back near Forham Road, smoke billowed from a pothole, water spouted from a nearby hydrant, and while police cars arrived with lights flashing, Con Ed workers huddled over a manhole and set up shop with their truck. I thought, blackout.

I stopped a man striding down Fordham Road with a backpack, muscles and a do-rag and asked him what he thought about Wal-Mart coming to the neighborhood.

Demone ColhounPhoto by Tom Beller
Demone Colhoun

“Probably be a good thing,” said the man, whose name was Demone Colhoun. “You have all these small stores going out of business around here. Maybe Wal-Mart could handle the rent.”

He said he had been to a Wal-Mart in Florida and liked it, and when I suggested that a lot of local stores might go out of business he said, “Me, as a customer, I want the most for my money.”

I asked the same question of an older woman walking by in a fantastic green dress and matching turban, who was carrying several bulging plastic bags. She moved warily and would answer me only from a distance of 10 feet. She, too, said that Wal-Mart coming to the Bronx would be a good thing. I told her that some people thought that their wages were unfairly low. (I didn’t want to proselytize, but Cofinas and company are definitely my team here.) She considered this for a moment. “Then I would be against it,” she said. “If the wages were unfair.”

She told me only her first name — Tonkya — and wouldn’t let me take her picture, but we parted cordially, and she walked away past a large police truck and a sign posted on a streetlight that read, “Area under NYPD video surveillance.”

City of Hydrants

It was full-on dusk now, and I wound my way home through festive if slightly apocalyptic night scenes of children playing in the fierce spray of open fire hydrants.

My thoughts lingered on Wal-Mart in the city. And then moved to Demone Calhoun. And finally to Buffa’s. And I decided that I didn’t even like Buffa’s that much. I always found it a bit annoying. I once saw a couple of guys who looked very much like Demone Colhoun standing at the counter deliberating over menus until Augie, characteristically to-the-point, said, “Come on, guys, move it. You’re blocking the entrance!”

The two men said, “Rude!” and walked out the door to the fate of a much more expensive lunch.

Was that it?

Or was it a more abstract dissonance around Buffa’s? I drove along thinking about the contradiction: it was a slightly annoying place I was sad to see go. One of the complicated things about the city is that some of our annoyances are actually a kind of pleasure: the annoyance provides a friction, and that friction provides a kind of parameter to the self, a definition. The suburban big box store is all about no friction, no borders, economies of enormous scale, and no heightened sense of self. Maybe this heightened sense of self is unhealthy, overrated, but it is one of New York’s indigenous virtues, I think, and perhaps the reason it is so difficult to get any writing done in this town that is nevertheless full of writers.

The Decider

The car ahead of me slowed and stopped. Up ahead a child was straddling an open hydrant. He had a can in his hand. As each car passed, he pressed the can against the open mouth of the hydrant and turned it into a water cannon. Each car slowed as it approached the gauntlet. The kid had this great poker face. He would stand there with the water lapping peacefully out of the hydrant. The car would edge forward and then he would absolutely cream it, his eyes right on the driver, his expression unchanged.

This happened to the three cars in front of me, and then it was my turn. I sat there on my Vespa, with no window to roll up. The kid kept his mournful poker face as he stood hunched over the hydrant, can in hand.
Come on, I thought, give me a break. I waited for some sign from him that I had a pass. A horn honked behind me. The kid’s face, lit by the last traces of sky, a bit of street lamp and the headlights behind me, showed no expression. I put my feet up and rolled forward, waiting for the crushing blast. To my surprise, it never came.

Douglas Coupland: Time Capsules - September 11

Slide Show

On Sept. 11, I was marooned in Madison, Wis., on the first day of a 52-day book tour. On the 12th, I was able to phone through to the Bloomsbury offices in New York’s Flatiron Building. Because a Verizon transmitter on the North Tower had been destroyed, Bloomsbury was able only to receive incoming calls, not to call out. There wasn’t much for the staff to do, really, and my publicist, Sara Mercurio, said that knowing I was out on the road gave them some sort of reason for coming in in the mornings, and this gave me a sense of mission. I’d been ready to pack the whole thing in.

By the fifth day in Madison, I was beginning to think, Hmmm … maybe if I’m stuck here for the rest of my life I could make a go of it. It’s a pretty little town — like TV’s “Happy Days” — nice houses and Mrs. Cunninghams all over the place making endless batches of cookies and cooling them on the ledges of Dutch doors.

On day six, I was able to board one of the first flights allowed back in the air and get to Los Angeles. I had a room at the Raffles L’Ermitage, in Beverly Hills, which had been fully booked for the Emmy Awards that then had been canceled, so the place was empty save for me, Claudia Schiffer and Salman Rushdie. Most of my TV and radio interviews — like much of the press schedule for that tour — was obliterated by the events of the month, and I spent four days on the hotel roof, poolside, looking at the skies over Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades, marveling at how there wasn’t a single jet contrail to be seen (LAX had yet to open). Nor were there helicopters in the skies. Also, crime was down so there were fewer sirens, and I may as well have been sunning on the rooftop of a hotel in the middle of an Indiana cornfield.

The tour did press on, though, and over the next six weeks I kept a photo diary of the newly minted post-Sept. 11 world, focusing on airports, public situations involving media and electronics, and anything that smacked of surveillance. I look at them as a suite, and the whole tone of the tour comes back to me — the endless lineups to get through security, only to board a totally empty flight. Most of the flights those first three weeks were empty — and then suddenly every flight was chokingly full. There was never just a half-full plane.

Another thing I remember is empty hotels. I was always one of a handful of guests at any hotel, and I felt like a character in a J. G. Ballard novel — or in “Galapagos,” by Kurt Vonnegut. I was in the Marriott in San Francisco and they simply shut down one of its towers. The only thing that’s ever come close to this experience was in Toronto during the SARS outbreak, when I was at the Four Seasons and a North American oncology convention pulled out, and there I was alone in the lobby, with elevator banks shut down and the bar closed.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Big Talk, Little Will

August 16, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist

The defeat of Senator Joe Lieberman by the upstart antiwar Democrat Ned Lamont has sparked a firestorm of debate about the direction of the Democratic Party. My own heart is with those Democrats who worry that just calling for a pullout from Iraq, while it may be necessary, is not a sufficient response to the biggest threat to open societies today — violent, radical Islam. Unless Democrats persuade voters — in the gut — that they understand this larger challenge, it’s going to be hard for them to win the presidency.

That said, though, the Democratic mainstream is nowhere near as dovish as critics depict. Truth be told, some of the most constructive, on-the-money criticism over the past three years about how to rescue Iraq or improve the broader “war on terrorism” has come from Democrats, like Joe Biden, Carl Levin, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Bill Clinton.

But whatever you think of the Democrats, the important point is this: They are not the party in power today.

What should really worry the country is not whether the Democrats are being dragged to the left by antiwar activists who haven’t thought a whit about the larger struggle we’re in. What should worry the country is that the Bush team and the Republican Party, which control all the levers of power and claim to have thought only about this larger struggle, are in total denial about where their strategy has led.

Besides a few mavericks like Chuck Hagel and John McCain on Iraq and Dick Lugar and George Shultz on energy, how many Republicans have stood up and questioned the decision-making that has turned the Iraq war into a fiasco? Had more of them done so, instead of just mindlessly applauding the administration, the White House might have changed course when it had a chance.

Not only is there no honest self-criticism among Republicans, but — and this is truly contemptible — you have Dick Cheney & Friends focusing their public remarks on why Mr. Lamont’s defeat of Mr. Lieberman only proves that Democrats do not understand that we are in a titanic struggle with “Islamic fascists” and are therefore unfit to lead.

Oh, really? Well, I just have one question for Mr. Cheney: If we’re in such a titanic struggle with radical Islam, and if getting Iraq right is at the center of that struggle, why did you “tough guys” fight the Iraq war with the Rumsfeld Doctrine — just enough troops to lose — and not the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force to create the necessary foundation of any democracy-building project, which is security? How could you send so few troops to fight such an important war when it was obvious that without security Iraqis would fall back on their tribal militias?

Mr. Cheney, if we’re in a titanic struggle with Islamic fascists, why have you and President Bush resisted any serious effort to get Americans to conserve energy? Why do you refuse to push higher mileage standards for U.S. automakers or a gasoline tax that would curb our imports of oil? Here we are in the biggest struggle of our lives and we are funding both sides — the U.S. military with our tax dollars and the radical Islamists and the governments and charities that support them with our gasoline purchases — and you won’t lift a finger to change that. Why? Because it might impose pain on the oil companies and auto lobbies that fund the G.O.P., or require some sacrifice by Americans.

Mr. Cheney, if we’re in a titanic struggle with Islamic fascists, why do you constantly use the “war on terrorism” as a wedge issue in domestic politics to frighten voters away from Democrats. How are we going to sustain such a large, long-term struggle if we are a divided country?

Please, Mr. Cheney, spare us your flag-waving rhetoric about the titanic struggle we are in and how Democrats just don’t understand it. It is just so phony — such a patent ploy to divert Americans from the fact that you have never risen to the challenge of this war. You will the ends, but you won’t will the means. What a fraud!

Friends, we are on a losing trajectory in Iraq, and, as the latest London plot underscores, the wider war with radical Islam is only getting wider. We need to reassess everything we are doing in this “war on terrorism” and figure out what is worth continuing, what needs changing and what sacrifice we need to demand from every American to match our means with our ends. Yes, the Democrats could help by presenting a serious alternative. But unless the party in power for the next two and half years shakes free of its denial, we are in really, really big trouble.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Line of Fire - Christian Zionists and False Prophets

As if we don’t have enough problems with Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists, we are now confronted with yet another -ist. Christian Zionists, mostly from the United States, are trying to throw their weight behind one of the parties, in effect calling for the continuation of the war and carnage in Lebanon.

A small minority of evangelical Christians have entered the Middle East political arena with some of the most un-Christian statements I have ever heard. The latest gems come from people like Pat Robertson, the founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, and Rev. John Hagee of Christians United for Israel. Hagee, a popular televangelist who leads the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, ratcheted up his rhetoric this year with the publication of his book, “Jerusalem Countdown,” in which he argues that a confrontation with Iran is a necessary precondition for Armageddon (which will mean the death of most Jews, in his eyes) and the Second Coming of Christ.

In the best-selling book, Hagee insists that the United States must join Israel in a preemptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West. Shortly after the book’s publication, he launched Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which, as the Christian version of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he said would cause “a political earthquake.” With the outbreak of the war on Lebanon, he and others have called to their followers to pray for Israel, and for the continuation of the war on Lebanon. They have demanded that Israel not relent in what they call the need to destroy Hezbollah and Hamas. They seem to have completely forgotten the very core of the Christian faith.

I have been watching many American evangelicals trying to distance themselves from the calls in the name of the Almighty for the war to continue. As Christian leaders of all persuasions, including leaders of evangelical churches, are calling for Mideast peace and an immediate cease-fire, these Christian Zionists want their followers to pray only for Israel.

One e-mail message that was making the rounds came from a prominent U.S. evangelical Christian totally upset with an interview that Pat Robertson gave to the Jerusalem Post. In it, Robertson appears more pro-Israeli than the Israelis themselves and expresses anger at the notion that Israelis might not completely finish off Hezbollah — a task that he somehow sees as God’s will. The author of the above-mentioned e-mail message, Serge Duss of World Vision, a Christian relief organization, called the Robertson interview “a perversion of the Gospel of Jesus.” Duss writes that he is sure that many evangelicals strongly disagree and would gladly refute Robertson’s distorted theology.

Duss insists that American evangelicals are praying for 1) the people of Israel and Lebanon; 2) for a cease-fire, so that lives will be spared and 3) for peace with justice for all people in the Middle East.

The discussion has reminded me of so many calls I heard as a young Christian boy growing up in Bethlehem and Jerusalem: the false prophets that have predicted the end days and the presence of the anti-Christ are too numerous to list here. But I vividly remember the very same Pat Robertson in 1982 as he spoke on C.B.N.’s “700 Club.” He stood in front of a map of the Middle East, opened up a copy of the Old Testamant and claimed to know what a particular prophecy meant in geopolitical terms. As the Begin-Sharon army at the time was besieging Beirut, he pointed out exactly what he said would happen next. In particular he was keen to repeat that the P.L.O.’s leader at the time, Yasir Arafat, was none other than the anti-Christ himself.

Less than 13 years after that international broadcast, Robertson was filmed visiting Arafat in Gaza, delivering food and milk to Palestinians and applauding the peace agreement that Arafat had signed with Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin.

Christian Zionists who use religious rhetoric to justify political and military actions are no better than Jewish or Islamic fundamentalists who make similar outlandish claims. Peace in the Middle East should be about the liberty, independence and freedoms of all the people of the region, and not about whose promised land the Holy Land is.

For the time being, I, as a Christian Palestinian, prefer to follow the words of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God.”

Line of Fire - An Existential Moment


I had to read the editorial in Haaretz twice to be sure I’d read correctly. “At this late and critical stage of the conflict,” wrote the voice of the Israeli left on August 8, “the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] must propose, recommend and indeed must demand political approval — public approval is clearly assured — for extensive operations that can snatch a victory from the jaws of looming defeat.”

Was Haaretz, which has always upheld the preeminence of Israel’s civil authority over its military authority and regards generals as potential Dr. Strangeloves, really urging the army to “demand” that the politicians back its battle plans? Had any other Israeli newspaper done so, it would have been accused — foremost by Haaretz itself — of advocating a soft putsch. Haaretz’s stunning militancy is indicative of the growing frustration and depression Israelis feel at the prospect of not winning the war against Hezbollah — which really means losing the war.

With the emerging cease-fire, it appears that is about to happen. And that’s why so many Israelis regard the prospect of a cease-fire as a disaster. Under the cease-fire terms, authority for securing the northern border will be transferred to an “augmented” U.N. force which has, in the past, proven not merely ineffectual but often appeared complicitous with Hezbollah. Almost certainly, Anan will link Hezbollah’s disarmament to an Israeli withdrawal from Shebaa Farms — thereby providing Hezbollah with a political victory, and enhancing the jihadist momentum within the Muslim world. One way or another, Hezbollah will be back on the border, and Israel will have to fight again.

Most Israelis perceive this war as existential. Even left-leaning journalists have compared it to the desperate battles of the 1948 War of Independence and to the weeks before the 1967 Six Day War, when Arab leaders threatened to drive the Jews into the sea.

The existential threat isn’t imminent, of course. But an Israeli defeat could trigger a process that would unravel our long-term prospects for surviving in the Middle East. As one friend put it to me: “If we lose, it’s the beginning of the end.” And in recent days I’ve heard variations of that comment from Israelis across the political spectrum.

Those anxieties begin with the nature of Israel’s jihadist enemy. What connects Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas is the theology of genocide — which sees the Jews as a satanic people and the destruction of the Jewish state as a divine imperative. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah once remarked that he doesn’t mind Jews immigrating to Israel, because gathering them in one place will make it that much easier to destroy them. And Hezbollah’s patron, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called for Israel’s destruction so often that those genocidal pronouncements barely make news anymore — one more anti-Israel outrage that has been transformed from the inconceivable to the mundane. If Iran goes nuclear, Israel’s own nuclear force may not be much of a deterrence against apocalyptic leaders who apparently believe that the destruction of Israel will trigger the arrival of the Mahdi, the Shiite messiah. A nuclear Iran would be the ultimate suicide bomber.

For Israelis, this war is about restoring deterrence against the theologians of genocide. After Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, Nasrallah declared Israel a “spider web” — which seems from a distance durable but disintegrates with a single swipe. A Hezbollah victory, or even the perception of victory within the Arab world, will encourage terror attacks against our borders. And large parts of Israel’s periphery — especially the north and the southern area that borders Gaza — will become uninhabitable.

Finally, an inability to stop the most successful aggression against the Israeli home front since 1948 will result in widespread despair. Many Israelis, especially educated young people with options elsewhere, will understandably conclude that there is no hope for a normal life in a country that is an anomaly in the Middle East and that has lost the ability and perhaps the will to defend itself. The result will be widespread emigration. I know of one American-based high tech company with a branch in northern Israel that is arranging for its Israeli “brains,” as the president refers them, to be moved with their families to the northeastern United States. Will the “brains” want to return to the Galilee if Hezbollah hasn’t been uprooted from southern Lebanon?

Many Russian immigrants, who came here to escape a failed Soviet society, could conclude they made a mistake and that Israel is incapable of surviving in the long-term in the Middle East. One satirical TV skit showed an Israeli loudly proclaiming that there is no safer place for the Jews than “here” — which Israelis once said confidently about the Jewish state — but when the camera lens widens, we see he is seen speaking from London.

In a January 1996 speech in Stockholm before foreign ministers of the Arab League, Yasir Arafat laid out his vision of the long-term unraveling of the Jewish state: Extract territorial concessions from Israel, but without ending terror. When Israelis realize that not even a peace process will bring them security, then “a million rich Jews,” as Arafat put it, evidently meaning Israel’s middle class, will emigrate. Gradually, an impoverished Israel will lose its edge over the Arab world and collapse.

Hezbollah has taken us one step closer to realizing Arafat’s scenario.

Israelis see the war as a test case for our right to defend ourselves against terrorists. If the international community turns against Israel now, it will mean that we have no right to resist terrorists who hide behind their civilian population in order to attack ours.

This war is being fought on two fronts — Gaza as well as Lebanon. Those happen to be the two fronts from which Israel has unilaterally withdrawn to the international border. A recent “Dry Bones” cartoon by Yaakov Kirschen showed two Israelis discussing the war in Lebanon and in Gaza. “And the West Bank?” one asks. “Still quiet,” replies his friend. “We haven’t pulled back to the 1967 border there yet.”

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Yossi Klien Halevi

Yossi Klein Halevi, the author of "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land," is a senior fellow at The Shalem Center, an academic research institute in Jerusalem, and a correspondent for The New Republic.


Summer in the City - No Spitting!

I feel the need to write about bodily fluids. Perhaps it is all this perspiration, as TV ads and well-mannered people used to call sweat. I don’t really know why they called it perspiration. Sweat has such an honest, hard-working, 1930’s ring to it. That’s why George W. pretends to sweat on his ranch, but he’s a perspirer if I ever saw one. I, on the other hand, am shvitzing. That’s Yiddish, of course, and therefore the best word in any language for this slippery situation brought about by heat and humidity.

And now that we’re on the subject of bodily fluids, I really, really hate spitting. When my sons were younger, they would arrive home from camp and spit, every few feet, like H.B.O. cowboys, on the sidewalk. It was disgusting. We would have loud arguments on every street corner. Haven’t you ever seen a sign that says “No Expectorating”? I would ask. They would shake their heads sadly at my quaint notions. Then I would begin jumping up and down. It’s unsanitary and spreads disease! Tuberculosis is making a comeback! I don’t want to step in someone’s spit, not even yours! It’s, it’s, it’s … low class! (That was their favorite.) What if you forget and spit in front of a girl? (But girls spit, too, they explained. And they were right — I see lovely, delicate creatures in their pretty dresses cocking their heads to the side and letting one rip. Oh, dear. It is, as my grandmother said throughout her 98 years, the worst era in the history of the world.)

My grandmother and grandfather used to give a good spit once in a while, when I was really little, but my mother would go crazy with revulsion and try to embarrass them. The times changed (even in the endless worst era in the history of the world), and eventually they pretty much stopped. My great-grandfather spat tobacco, but that was before my time. And now, my sons have pretty much stopped, too. Even after watching a baseball game. In fact, I think the Mets spit less now than they did a few years ago. That’s what a really good manager can do. It’s obviously why they’re winning. I will go further and say that on the streets of New York City in August, when I expected to see a staccato of spitting provided by all those cigar-smoking men who consider it a summer style statement to reveal their hairy shoulders, I have seen no spitting whatsoever. Is it fashion? The zeitgeist? Their mothers’ voices ringing in their heads—“Are you crazy? That is disgusting!!!” — ?

Or is it? … Yes, it is, I’m sure of it — it’s all the shvitzing. There are no bodily fluids left to expectorate!

Again, I say, God bless August!

Line of Fire - Cease-Fire: Dispelling Two Imminent Clouds

The Lebanese are holding their breath. Will the cease-fire, which started this morning at 8 am, hold ? No one dares imagine what happens if it doesn’t, but an extraordinary phenomenon developed this morning as thousands of southern residents took to the road back to their villages, voting literally with their feet for a return to peace and normalcy. Another encouraging dimension was the announced withdrawal of Israeli troops, signaling that there is no Israeli desire to stay in Lebanon should the cease-fire hold under the terms of UNSCR 1701.

Two heavy clouds remain: one concerns the low threshold of a nervous Israel, which turns any incident into a risk for hell to break loose. Incidents are inevitable on an imbricate terrain where Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah militants form a fuzzy map. One or two Hezbollah militants were killed today, and the repetition of such incidents would quickly undermine the truce. Speaking to the Knesset this afternoon, the Israeli Prime Minister announced Israel’s intention to continue its pursuit of Hezbollah. War would be again inevitable if these threats were carried out against Hezbollah’s leadership.

This cloud is reinforced by the one cast by the ambiguity of Hezbollah, which professes support to the cease-fire, but considers it has the right to shoot at Israeli soldiers so long as they stay on Lebanese soil.

Both clouds should be forcefully dispelled, by lessening the zero-tolerance attitude of Israel and opposing a Hamas-like decapitation policy, and by working on removing Hezbollah’s ambiguity. I do not have the means to help on the first score, although I find the absence of open military preparations for foreign troops to move into the south a grave failure of the international community. The clause in Resolution 1701 requesting Israel to withdraw as early as possible should be taken seriously, and rapid withdrawal is contingent on foreign troops taking over. One does not yet see tangible signs of these troops, except for talk about the readiness of some countries to deploy them eventually. The Security Council had ample time to show such troops to be ready for immediate deployment in South Lebanon. Any delay brooks risk, and the dynamic of peace should be reinforced by far greater dynamism on this score.

On Hezbollah’s ambiguity, I expressed my opinion forcefully on Lebanese and Egyptian national television yesterday. There is no way armed Hezbollah militants can remain between the Litani River and the border. Should attacks be leveled against Israel, as the leadership of Hezbollah is trying to argue on the basis of a revival the so-called 1996 Israel-Lebanon Cease-Fire Understanding, peace will be immediately wrecked. That agreement was reached against a very different set of circumstances, as Israel was refusing to leave South Lebanon, and a stopgap modus vivendi developed to lessen civilian casualties on both sides. Today the peace plan introduced by UNSCR 1701 is based on the premise of a quick Israeli withdrawal and the parallel, exclusive deployment of international and Lebanese troops. There is no room for halfway measures that allow combat to resume in any form.

The ambiguous refusal by Hezbollah to vacate the South militarily already occasioned a serious crisis in the Council of Ministers, which failed to convene yesterday because the two Hezbollah ministers were reluctant to endorse that specific requirement of UNSCR 1701. This is not acceptable. Should Hezbollah boycott the Council of Ministers or refuse to conform to that clause, they should leave the government. Having been a year ago the first person in Lebanon to advocate the participation of Hezbollah ministers in government, against a decade and a half of a tacit understanding between Syria and the United States that they should be kept out, I feel morally compelled to speak out. When I suggested last year that Hezbollah should not be prevented from participating in government, I also insisted on the necessary quid pro quo: they could do not continue to operate as a separate armed force outside the law. Lebanon paid dearly for this weakness.

To protect the cease-fire, accelerate Israeli withdrawal and give a chance to a lasting peace on the border, the choice is clear: either Hezbollah ministers stay in government, and conform to UNSCR 1701, which was formally accepted by Lebanon; or they leave government and stay in opposition. Conforming to UNSCR 1701 means an end to Hezbollah’s military presence south of the Litani River and the recovery of all the land reoccupied by Israel since July 12 by the Lebanese army and an enhanced U.N. contingent. In a second stage, it includes the participation of Hezbollah in Lebanese political life exclusively as a Lebanese political, not a military, movement. As Lebanese, we cannot allow this oddity to remain, and cannot afford another war.

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Douglas Coupland: Time Capsules - Why Write Modern Fiction?

Many people think of me as being Mr. High Technology Guy, which I find odd since I’m a fiction writer, possibly one of the lowest-tech jobs going. I’m asked why I don’t get into movies or TV — why should I? I enjoy writing fiction. Without fiction we run the risk of losing forever the possibility of certain kinds of stories being told a certain way. And fiction allows for a time to reflect and savor speech and the gift of language.

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And yet there’s something weird with me. My existence annoys the hell out of traditional fiction writers. I get all sorts of corny damnations along the lines of, “All he’s doing is ruthlessly exploiting experimental fiction just to make truckloads of money.” Yes, that’s always been my plan all along. Yessiree, there’s no more surefire way of making a living than by exploiting society’s bottomless craving for experimental fiction. I’m sure if you go to any high school career counseling office, at the absolute bottom of a list of 9,472 possible career options, right below morris dancing and poultry sexing, you’ll find experimental fiction writing. My most recent novel features 24 pages of random numbers. Ka-ching! Ka-ching! I was certainly thinking of the jackpot when I put that in. And yet in it went, and it seems the more experimental my work gets, the more people respond to it.

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So the fact is that I do write, and I am a writer, and I can’t be wished out of existence by those aging crustysomethings who’ve been trying to do just this for 15 years. I also note that these folks are usually the same folks who are always passionately arguing for society to offer new platforms for new and different voices to be heard. Rich nutritious irony, if ever there was: as long as those voices end up sounding like their own voices in the end.

I find a stifling homogeneity in most fiction. I walk into a bookstore and look at the shelves filled with thousands of doubtless worthy novels — beautifully crafted, nicely honed and all of that — novels of love, loss and redemption and … in my head I feel as if I’ve walked into a Broyhill furniture showroom. I feel like I’m looking at countless dark-stained colonial-style bedroom suites, and endless arrays of pickled-maple empire dining sets, with no spindle left unturned, every buffed surface dreaming of a shot of Pledge. What I’m seeing is undoubtedly fine furniture. It’s just not …new furniture. And I’m not saying that the bulk of novels out there aren’t art — they are — they’re just not modern art. They don’t point out anything new or the possibility of anything new. I mean, it’s also pretty hard to imagine a beautifully rendered canvas of mallard ducks in the Museum of Modern Art. Or a watercolor portrait of Anne Hathaway.

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And the truth is that most people want to live in “old fashioned”-styled houses. It’s the way people are. But to be outraged and upset by the fact that someone might want to live in a modernist house seems medieval. No! My taste is absolute! Install Italianate decorative mantelpieces immediately! My ongoing joke is that most new subdivisions resemble microwave ovens with crown molding. If there’s anything new or modern to be seen, smother it with doohickeys.

I began writing because I fell in love with Pop Art at the age of 10. I’ve always thought that words are sexy. Words are art objects even by themselves, even without being inserted into a narrative. I discovered Jenny Holzer’s text work in art school in the early 1980’s. After that, it now seems, a lifetime spent working with words was unavoidable.

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And given everything I’ve just said, yes, I continue to write fiction. I continue to write fiction set in a modern world that has never been weirder or richer or more charged with options, a world inhabited with modern people who hoard Tamiflu, compare the advantage of one credit card over another, and, shamefully or not, wonder which tastes better, Coke or Pepsi. Or Royal Crown.

These modern people have TVs and watch them. They shop on eBay. They question the regime in power. They have repetitive stress disorders. They downloaded porn last weekend. And yet in spite of this — maybe even because of this — they possess the qualities to become myths. That’s where art lies.

Douglas Coupland: Time Capsules - Photoshop = Pop Art

American Pop artist James Rosenquist has always been one of my favorite
painters. So when I really got into Photoshop in 1998, I used his
visual techniques as my training guide on how to use this new
software. Using Pop imagery from all over the place I was able to
learn about layering and gradation and cutting and pasting and … in the
end I came to the conclusion that the 1960’s Pop artists were merely
dry runs for year 2000 imaging software. For example, Andy Warhol’s work was about cutting, pasting and cloning, while that of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns was about opacity, layering and filtering.

Included here are some early examples of how I used Pop to learn Photoshop.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Line of Fire - Victory and the ‘Battle of Forms’

In the Hezbollah-Israel war, another pattern resulting from the asymmetric conflict — pitting an armed political party against a state — has been the “battle of the forms.” It is clear that neither party can win the war in the classical Clausewitzian manner: overpower the enemy and take over its territory. To overpower Israel, Hezbollah must occupy it. But it does not even envision advancing into the Galilee. On the other side, Israel rightly hesitates to move too deep into Lebanese territory, not only because of the high number of casualties expected against a universally acknowledged brave and effective resistance. By taking over Lebanese villages, Israel risks turning its anti-Hezbollah war into anti-Lebanon war of conquest — in other words into a classical war with a different enemy.

What does asymmetry mean in terms of victory? A concept used by contract lawyers may be useful on such new terrain of geopolitics: “the battle of the forms.” When offer and acceptance become very close in the formation of a contract, it is the very last formulation that wins the day, hence the advice to business clients to get their version of the last draft to prevail. Between Hezbollah and Israel, success will be defined for each by the last version in the cease-fire contract.

As expected, Israeli won the first victory in the battle of the forms, when U.N Security Council Resolution 1701 was passed on Friday, a month after the conflict began. Hezbollah, through the Lebanese government, did manage to whittle down the request to deploy foreign troops under a U.N. Chapter 7 clause to the deployments of an enhanced UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force) in the south. But the text is resolutely in favor of Israel in practically all the disputed points: acknowledgement that Hezbollah started the war on July 12; prohibition of armed Hezbollah operatives in a large stretch from the Litani River to the border; principle of exclusive power of the Lebanese security forces and army across the country; prohibition of weapons and support from outside forces (read Syria and Iran) to non-state parties in Lebanon (read Palestinian factions and Hezbollah). An additional boon was given Israel when it was asked to operate its withdrawal from Lebanon “at the earliest” rather than “immediately.”

Another Security Council Resolution is in the works. It is expected after the U.N. Secretary General reports back to the Council on the implementation of 1701 in a month’s time, and another battle of the forms has already started over it. How the separation between Hezbollah and Israel works out is crucial. But much will also depend on domestic developments in Lebanon, especially the eagerness of the majority of Lebanese to impose the exclusivity of Lebanese law on the remainder of their territory.

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Summer in the City - Hillary: What’s Not to Like?

Everyone seems not to like Senator Clinton nowadays. A long time ago, of course, lots of people did not like First Lady Clinton because of her hairdo, but those were innocent days and since then, our country has become much more sophisticated in ways not to like a person. There are, for example, columnists in this paper who do not like her because at first she liked the war and then she didn’t like the war, but even today, she doesn’t not like the war enough. There are Democrats who would like to like her, but do not like her because not enough other people like her and therefore, she could ruin the Democrats’ electoral chances against the Republicans, who the Democrats don’t like more than they don’t like this potential nominee. The Republicans do not like her because even though she has liked some of the things they like, still it appears that she has not found it in her heart to not like most of the things they do not like — for instance, people. Bill, I have heard it said in certain circles, does not like his wife, but who am I to tell you who Bill likes or does not like, although I can tell you that I met Bill once and he did not seem to “like” me, if you know what I mean.

I do not not like Ms. Clinton for any of those reasons. I don’t like Hilary for a reason all my own. Or is it Hillary? See, that’s the problem. Hillary, or Hilary, misspells (or is it mispells?) her name. I used to have no trouble with that name. Then Hillary/Hilary came along, and I thought, O.K., she’s a spelling maverick. Just remember, I told myself, that she is like a hill, which has two L’s, because her career has had its ups and downs and the downs have been like valleys — not valeys. And don’t forget: it takes a village, also with two L’s. But then, I started to think, it is also true that Hilary is not like a hill. Hills are covered with grass and though Bill might have smoked but not inhaled, there is no way that Hilary would ever have touched the stuff.

If only the Hilary/Hillary problem stopped there, I could live with it. But the dilemma (two m’s, easy-peasy) has leaked (notice I did not say “spilled”) into the Alison/Allison area. It is almost as bad as “exaggerate,” a word I will never be able to spell, to my embarrassment, a word I seem to spell correctly about half the time. The only reason these words are spelled correctly here, by the way, is because my computer automatically corrects all misspellings.

Hilary/Hillary, incidentally (that I can spell), could also be the name of a man, but don’t get me started on that one. I have not finished with Hilary/Hillary, the woman, whom I would like very much were she to have another name, but she does not, so I say: the hel with her.

Summer in the City - A Sense of Purpose

Do you ever wish you were sunk into your chintz cushions in your white wicker chair on the veranda? You know — those chintz pillows covered in the fabric with the big, blowsy roses? And that little breeze that blows through your garden of real blowsy red roses? And you sip your ice tea and watch the world go by and think, yes, such a lovely way to spend a summer day?

Except you don’t have a wicker chair, much less a garden?

Me either.

That, however, is why there is the Museum of the City of New York. It has white wicker chairs in which to loll and blowsy roses at which to gaze. And inside … well, how blowsy can a blowsy rose get? Mighty blowsy if it was designed by Dorothy Draper. In the exhibit about her life and work as an interior designer that’s at the museum now, there’s a wonderful video of her looking a little blowsy herself, explaining how every bit of design must have a “puuurpose.” But the only puuurpose you can find in her designs, really, is delight. Ah, delight, what higher puuurpose is there?

I was relieved to be delighted, too, let me tell you, for on our way to the museum the other day, my girlfriend Janet and I were waiting for the bus and it was 100 degrees and the driver … DID NOT STOP.

Yes, it’s been hot and some people — people who drive New York City bus number 5582, for example — have not behaved with the civility one might have expected from the person who drives, say, bus 5582. Some people, and I’m not mentioning names, although they tend to be the person who drives bus 5582, do not realize that it is not only design that has puuurpose, it is also buses. What is the puuurpose of a bus if not to stop and pick up passengers at the bus stop, and in the case of bus 5582, to pick up Janet and me?

This disturbing trend in what can only be described as bus 5582, on the hottest day of the year, by a certain bus driver who happened to be behind the wheel of a bus which I happened to notice was number 5582, has given me an inspiration regarding New York City public transportation. I am a fan of New York City public transportation, which is why the actions of a bus driver who shall remain nameless only because I do not know his name (although he was seen in the driver’s seat of bus number 5582) were so devastating. Also, because it was 100 degrees and we were late.

But here is my idea: Imagine if the interior of a bus looked like a Dorothy Draper interior. Dorothy Draper designed hotel lobbies and spas and the interiors of airplanes. I would like to see a Dorothy Draper design in a New York City bus. Black, but not puuure black, no, an almost puuurple black, with bright white trim and banquettes with pink velvet seats and green and white striped backs and huge, gilded bell pulls, lacquered white poles and red satin straps, fringed, of course … it would be beautiful. And its puuurpose, its only puuurpose, would be to delight. It would stop at every stop, too. Why? Why, in order to delight those waiting there in the 100-degree heat to go to the East Side to see the Dorothy Draper exhibit and sit in the Museum of the City of New York’s white wicker chairs!

Let’s hire Dorothy Draper! Cruel and inhumane bus drivers, the identifying number of whose bus we need not repeat, for by now we have memorized that it is 5582, would be soothed and mellowed by the weirdly, grandly cozy Draper design. Smiling and rehabilitated, this formerly hardhearted driver, who had once so callously guided the large vehicle numbered 5582 past the wilting, overheated citizens, would now pull gently to a halt …

Wait.

Oh.

Janet just told me the number of the bus was not 5582, at all. It was 5593 …

Well, it probably didn’t quite hit 100 degrees that day, either.

But there was a little breeze when we sat in our white wicker chairs. And there was the scent of roses.

Dorothy Draper is dead, by the way. Did I mention that?

Yet her puuurpose lives on in New York City in August. Fat flowers, rococo sunbursts and public transportation for all!

Summer in the City - Filling In the Past

They’re filling in the West Side now. Every morning during the week, my wife and I awake to the cries of workmen high above our heads, putting the finishing touches on a glass tower that has already risen some 35 stories into the sky.

It is one of two towers that will face each other across Broadway, a matched pair of condominiums roughly twice the height of any other building for nearly a mile around. The one around the corner from us has already topped off, and when I look up it doesn’t seem quite real to me; more like an “artist’s rendition” of some absurdity from a children’s encyclopedia: How would the pyramids of the pharaohs look by comparison in the Manhattan of today? What would it look like if you plunged a gigantic, glass stiletto into a neighborhood of modest brick and stone apartment buildings?

It’s beyond me why dozens of individuals will pony up millions of dollars to stare out at the more-or-less mirror image of their own dismal glass box across Broadway, but then the real estate boom in this town long ago kicked off the last traces of rationality. Over the last few months, numerous businesses in low buildings along Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues have closed their doors, and the scuttlebutt is that these shops are to be demolished and replaced with more gargantuan high-rises. Three gracious old townhouses were razed just to make garage entrances for one of the new towers.

To help us make sense of the pace at which our neighborhood is being transformed, the local Bloomingdale Branch of the New York Public Library recently assembled an exhibit of maps, books and photographs illustrating other changes of the past 200 years. Bloomingdale (no relation to the store) was what much of the Upper West Side used to be called; a collection of farms and villages that persisted until the construction of the elevated railroad in the late 19th century. The library exhibit included pictures of this earlier seismic shift, including photos from the 1890’s of poor farm shanties and turned earth, residing cheek-by-jowl with five- and six-story apartment buildings. I had seen these photos and many others like them before, but I never cease to be amazed at how close we still are to that other, agricultural Manhattan that existed just over a century ago. (The mostly rusted fire escape on my own building bears a date of 1896, something that I don’t like to think about too much.)

The next photographs in the library exhibit, from the 1930’s, are still more astonishing. They show a landscape even more dense and thoroughly urbanized than it is today. The old farms are now completely buried, replaced by row upon row of tightly packed buildings and the elevated rail; all gray steel and stone. The elevated and all those buildings later vanished, too, as if they’d been made of air. The ground was cleared again to make way for “Manhattantown,” Robert Moses’s notorious 1950’s exercise in urban development on the blocks from Central Park West to Amsterdam, between 97th and 100th Streets. The project — later redubbed “Park West Village” — was widely condemned as a paragon of malfeasance and bad urban planning. Robert Caro, in his biography of Moses, “The Power Broker,” blames it for turning much of the Upper West Side into a slum overnight.

I don’t doubt Caro’s charges. “The Power Broker” is one of the best, most thoroughly researched urban histories ever written. It’s significant that his book’s subtitle is “Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.” Caro clearly believed that Moses’s arrogant, racist, car-crazy mutilation of the city really had killed it, that New York was down and it wasn’t coming back up.

Yet cities are remarkably resilient entities. It’s interesting how benign Park West Village and its surrounding public housing developments seem now — largely crime-free, filled in with trees and playgrounds, and full of families. Their buildings were constructed on a scale vastly more human than that of these glass excrescences that will overshadow us all.

Nor is my patch of the Upper West Side a slum, if it ever really was one. It certainly is different from when I first moved here, more than 25 years ago. Then you could still find Bowery-style bars along Broadway, where the floors were sprinkled with sawdust and serious drunks sat downing glasses of bad whiskey. The local bijou, the elegant Metro Theatre, was a porno house. A few blocks south, prostitutes worked the car trade from Jersey, even along expensive blocks between Broadway and West End Avenue. Later years brought new plagues — of break-ins and the crack epidemic, when we stepped outside every morning to find our stoops littered with tiny glass vials and burned-out match books.

I don’t miss those days, of course, but I will miss us. By that I mean so many of us who have lived and worked here all this time, and have strived to make it a better place. For years, my neighborhood has been preserved in a sort of no man’s land, a dividing line just beyond all sorts of furious gentrification. What developed was a remarkably diverse community — what New York is supposed to be, but so often is not. We are almost a joke about multiculturalism. My apartment building includes tenants whose antecedents are Sikh, Indian, Haitian, Ugandan, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Chinese, Ashkenazi, German, Irish and English. And nearly every possible definition of family is included: traditional, extended; gay parents with child; single mother with child; lovers; roommates; friends; and a single member of the transgendered community.

We may not all be best friends, but we manage to live together with remarkable harmony and good feeling. Many of my neighbors have indeed been here 20 years or more, and I have watched them slowly age as they have watched me, as we greet one another at the elevator or in the laundry room — a little paunchier, a little grayer and balder with every year, but still the same faces. I don’t like to think of us all gone, as surely and as suddenly as those seemingly imperishable buildings from the 1930’s.

Cities are all about loss, too. To remain resilient they must change, but the questions remain: What is any change for? And who will be left once it is done? Or are we to go on forever ploughing under and throwing up worse mistakes?

Maybe the great glass condominiums will outlast the handiwork of Cheops. But I take pleasure in spotting more humble survivors in my neighborhood: The church across the street that has been there for more than 150 years. The three-story, wooden building with a diner on the first floor, once a stagecoach stop on Bloomingdale Road. Surely something of us will live on, too. They can’t fill us all in, can they?

Talking to Evil

August 13, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist


If there’s one thing about North Korea that is widely known, it’s that there’s no point in negotiating with it. After all, President Bill Clinton reached a landmark nuclear deal with North Korea and it then cheated and secretly produced nuclear weapons on the side, rendering that agreement no more than worthless paper.

Alas, that one “fact” is wrong. And since the perception that negotiation failed is so widespread — and shapes our unwillingness to negotiate with Iran and Syria, central players in today’s Middle East crisis — it’s worth setting the record straight.

Vice President Dick Cheney’s approach — often paraphrased as, “we don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it” — has hobbled foreign policy over the last six years. It let North Korea outmaneuver us and made progress in the Middle East impossible.

Last month, President Bush led an international gnashing of teeth about North Korea’s missile test. But at the end of the day, despite a U.N. resolution that was a significant achievement for the administration, North Korea is continuing its missile development and plutonium production.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush offer us a nice test case of alternative approaches to dealing with rogue regimes — engagement and deal-making in the case of Mr. Clinton, and confrontation and isolation in the case of Mr. Bush. So let’s look at how well each approach worked.

North Korea began obtaining plutonium under President Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush, and that rogue behavior led at the beginning of Mr. Clinton’s presidency to frenzied negotiations that culminated in the Agreed Framework of 1994.

That was the deal in which North Korea would get oil and nuclear reactors in exchange for freezing and eventually dismantling its nuclear weapons program. Republicans were furious, noting correctly that North Korea was in effect blackmailing us by making us pay to stop its outrageous behavior. Moreover, North Korea soon began to cheat: it secretly tried to develop an alternative route to nuclear weapons using enriched uranium.

Mr. Bush, seeing the Agreed Framework as the mollycoddling of tyrants, backed out of it in 2002.

Alas, this approach worked even worse: North Korea revived its plutonium program and converted old fuel rods into enough plutonium for a half-dozen weapons. And North Korea is now adding enough plutonium for about one weapon a year.

So here’s the score card: Mr. Clinton’s negotiated approach prevented North Korea from making a single ounce of plutonium during his eight years in office (no one seriously asserts the opposite). In contrast, North Korea will have obtained enough plutonium for about 10 weapons on Mr. Bush’s watch.

What about North Korea’s cheating? That didn’t involve plutonium but efforts to purchase equipment to enrich uranium and make weapons by a separate path. And that effort apparently never got off the ground; the intelligence community is pretty sure that North Korea hasn’t made any uranium bombs under either Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush.

So, zero new nuclear weapons under Mr. Clinton, and enough plutonium for 10 weapons under Mr. Bush: that’s a fair indication of which approach works better.

Instead of negotiating directly with evil regimes, Mr. Bush has used a strategy of persuading proxies to help: China in the case of North Korea, and friendly Arab states in the case of Syria. That has failed because those proxies don’t share our strategies and don’t have much influence.

Relying on the Chinese doesn’t work, for example, because the North Koreans and the Chinese privately can’t stand each other. I’m told that after the missile tests, the Chinese government requested an urgent meeting to transmit a message to Kim Jong Il — then the Chinese seethed because the North Koreans made them wait three days before even listening to the message.

There simply is no substitute for engaging directly, even with brutal regimes, as President Richard Nixon did so successfully with Mao’s China. And Mr. Bush has dealt repeatedly with one odious regime: Sudan’s. Mr. Bush hasn’t been able to stop the genocide in Darfur, but he did end the war between northern and southern Sudan, a conflict that had cost two million lives over 20 years. That was a triumph for Mr. Bush, and it came through relentless negotiations.

So with the Middle East in crisis, let’s hope that Mr. Bush will try direct negotiations with Syria and even Iran. Negotiations may not be pretty, but the evidence shows that they work far better than tooth-gnashing.

Frank Rich is on vacation.